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The Real Cost of School: 5 Things Everyone Should Know

Chime Team • August 4, 2021

illustration of graduate in cap and gown hidden costs of education

Even public school can come with a slew of hidden costs. Here are the five biggest barriers our members face in paying for an American education.

From school uniforms to college tuition, many Americans struggle with the high cost of an education – for themselves and their kids. In fact, a recent survey found that more than one-third of parents dread back-to-school shopping, with 57% citing money as the main reason. 

Even though the cost of school can be challenging, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone. Below, we share a collection of experiences with paying for education in the US, plus tips that make the journey just a bit less expensive. 

Here’s what your fellow Chime members want you to know. 

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1. Uniforms and school supplies add up

Even when their children attend public school, many Chime parents struggle with the additional hidden expenses like uniforms and school supplies. 

“Keeping up with school uniforms, being a single mom, that was hard,” Chime member Yvette said. “You know kids: They rip stuff, they tear stuff, they lose stuff.” Jeneveri, 36,  agreed. She recently spent $100 on her 10-year-old son’s uniform, not including shoes, and hopes it’ll last him half the school year. 

For her part, Tara, a 34-year-old mother of three in Georgia, pointed to school pictures ($25), school rings ($50), and prom tickets ($50), speaking for everyone when she said, “That stuff adds up.”

These hard-working Chime members have managed to cover expenses with careful budgeting and extra shifts. “I have gotten my bills down to the bare minimum,” Jeneveri said. “Each month I map out exactly what I have to do, and then I strategize when I’ll be able to pay it.” 


Chime tips

  • Contact your local Salvation Army, United Way, and Boys and Girls Club branches; many run school supply drives you can take advantage of. 
  • Shop used, relying on Facebook Marketplace, thrift stores, and yard sales for your needs. You can also post in local parents’ groups to see if anyone’s interested in doing a swap (since kids grow so darn fast!).
  • If buying new, try Dollar Tree first. Or use a site like Cashback Monitor to earn cash back on online purchases. 

Read more: The Ultimate Back-to-School Budgeting Guide

2. Helping your kids afford college is tough

Several Chime members mentioned their wish for their children to attend college. Referencing her three daughters, Tara said: “I want them all to make something of themselves — more than what I had and what I am. I don’t want them to have to struggle like I do.” 

With her oldest daughter about to start her senior year, Tara desperately hopes she’ll be able to earn a scholarship or other type of grant towards a college education. “But if not,” Tara said, “it’ll be me, figuring it out.” 

Jeninne, 48, had also hoped to help her daughter pay for college. But when she tried to co-sign for her daughter’s student loans, the applications were denied because of Jeninne’s credit history. “That was heartbreaking for me,” Jeninne said. “Because I couldn’t help her.” 

Though the experience was difficult, Jeninne’s daughter eventually managed to get loans on her own, and has since graduated with a bachelor’s degree. 


Chime tips

  • If you’d like to someday help your children pay for college by co-signing on their student loans, work on improving your credit now. (And tell your kids to work on improving their grades, which could help them win grants and scholarships!)
  • Speak to your child’s guidance counselor to learn what types of programs and funding options are available. Seek help from regional organizations like QuestBridge, OneGoal, and College Possible
  • If your children are still young, consider opening a 529 plan. On birthdays and holidays, ask friends and family to donate to your child’s 529 plan instead of buying toys they’ll forget about a week later. Only make contributions to the plan yourself, however, if your retirement savings are already on track. 

Read more: Student Loans 101: What to Know About Borrowing for College

3. Transportation costs can be a burden

When Jeneveri was earning her bachelor’s in social work in Mississippi, she did the “right” thing, in financial terms: She lived with her parents to save money. But her university was 45 minutes away, and she had to commute back and forth every weekday for four years. 

Since Jeneveri drove her own vehicle, she was responsible for gas, insurance, and car repairs. To cover her costs, she had a work-study job that paid about $500 a month.  

Still, she said, “It was always challenging, just getting transportation, making sure I had adequate funds.” And still, she ended up with $100,000 in student loans. Though Jeneveri doesn’t regret her choices, she does believe lower-income students should receive more help. 

“There should be more funds, more grants, more opportunities for people so they won’t have to get so far in debt,” she said. 


Chime tips

  • Before choosing a college, consider how you’ll get there. Keep in mind that taking a bus or train is usually cheaper than driving, and has the added bonus of allowing you to study during your commute. 
  • If you own a car, apply for good student discounts from your insurer. Also download GasBuddy and GetUpside to get the best gas prices near you.
  • Ask your university if it has any partnerships with public transit authorities or bike share companies, as students can often snag discounted rates. If that’s not an option, ask whether there’s an online forum on which you can search for carpool buddies. 

Read more: How to Save Money on Transportation By Changing Your Habits

4. Fun field trips sneak up on you

Going to a museum or theme park is an exciting outing for students. But for Chime parents on a budget, it’s a different story. “Their field trips can be so expensive,” said Tara. “I never realized that.” 

When her oldest daughter recently needed $300 for a class trip to Six Flags, Tara took on additional shifts at her custodial job. “If all the kids see my daughter not going, I don’t want them saying we couldn’t afford it,” she said. “So I worked extra hard to make sure she got to go.”

Jeninne recalled similar experiences from her daughter’s younger years. On field trips, when lunch wasn’t provided, Jeninne would have to ask her mother for $20 to buy sub sandwiches. 

Jeninne, who lives in Vermont, was frustrated by the school’s failure to see how much that weighed on families who normally receive free lunches. “They don’t think about that,” she said. “They should give these kids vouchers or money for their lunches.” 


Chime tips

  • Though it may be difficult, tell your child’s teacher or principal about the financial strain that field trips place on your family. There may be resources in place to assist you with their cost. 
  • Start a field trip fund, saving $5–$10 per month for future needs. You can use Chime’s automatic savings feature to make it fairly painless. 
  • If an unexpected expense — like lunch on a field trip — crops up between paychecks, you can use SpotMe, Chime’s fee-free overdraft service. We’ve got your back when it comes to overdrawing up to $200 for eligible members.¹

Read more: What Is a Sinking Fund?

5. Student loans can be risky

Three decades ago, Yvette took out a $10,000 loan to attend technical school. But she soon got pregnant and was forced to drop out. Six months later, the student loan bills started arriving, and they haven’t stopped since. 

Unable to afford her payments, the Floridian’s loan balance has tripled, and now totals $30,000. “This is a debt that has followed me from 18 to 48 years old,” Yvette said. “It’s never ending.” Even worse, she has fallen victim to two scams that promised to help lower her payments, but took her money instead. 

Although student loans are an often-used (and often essential!) pathway to a higher education, Yvette’s experience demonstrates how cautious you must be when taking them out. 


Chime tips

  • If you’re still deciding where to pursue your degree, avoid for-profit institutions — and instead look to a community college or one of these best value schools
  • Before taking out any student loans, calculate what your monthly payments would be (and remember you can accept less than what is offered). Prioritize federal student loans, as they have far more protections than those from private lenders. And try to maximize scholarships and grants, which don’t have to be paid back. 
  • If you’re already drowning in student loan debt, reach out to a student loan counselor certified by the National Federation for Credit Counseling. The organization won’t refuse you services because you can’t pay, and will work with you to find a price you can afford.

Read more: Student Loan Help: 8 Student Loan Mistakes To Avoid

The value of an education — priceless?

For many people across the country, including many Chime members, affording an education for themselves and their children is a huge financial challenge. 

When Yvette’s kids were in school, for instance, she often had to skip paying other bills, like her credit cards and auto loan, so she could meet her children’s needs. 

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul was the only way I could do it,” Yvette said. “I would fall into debt because I couldn’t pay those extra bills; whatever extra money I did have always went to the kids.”

Tara, whose children are younger than Yvette’s, is living this reality right now. Earlier this year, when a bunch of school expenses popped up, she turned off her cell phone service, saying: “That’s one thing I figured I could go without.” 

Though she admits finding ways to fund her daughters’ educations is “really hard,” Tara makes sacrifices to give them the opportunities — the field trips, the proms, the educational experiences — she never had. 

“My girls are my life, so I definitely want them to have more,” she said. “It’s worth it, it really is.” 

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‡ SpotMe® for Credit Builder is an optional, no interest/no fee overdraft line of credit tied to the Secured Deposit Account. SpotMe on Debit is an optional, no fee service attached to your Chime Checking Account (individually or collectively, “SpotMe”). Eligibility for SpotMe requires $200 or more in qualifying direct deposits to your Chime Checking Account each month.

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1 SpotMe® for Credit Builder is an optional, no interest/no fee overdraft line of credit tied to the Secured Deposit Account. SpotMe on Debit is an optional, no fee service attached to your Chime Checking Account (individually or collectively, “SpotMe”). Eligibility for SpotMe requires $200 or more in qualifying direct deposits to your Chime Checking Account each month.

Qualifying members will be allowed to overdraw their Chime Checking Account and/or their Secured Deposit Account up to $20 in total, but may be later eligible for a higher combined limit of up to $200 or more based on member’s Chime account history, direct deposit frequency and amount, spending activity and other risk-based factors. Your SpotMe Limit will be displayed to you within the Chime mobile app. You will receive notice of any changes to your SpotMe Limit. Your SpotMe Limit may change at any time, at Chime or its banking partners’ discretion. Although there are no overdraft fees, there may be out-of-network or third party fees associated with ATM transactions or OTC cash withdrawal fees at retailers. SpotMe won't cover non card transactions, including ACH transfers, Pay Anyone transfers, or Chime Checkbook transactions. SpotMe Terms and Conditions.

~ Out-of-network ATM withdrawal and over the counter advance fees may apply except at MoneyPass ATMs in a 7-Eleven, or any Allpoint or Visa Plus Alliance ATM.

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